Scientist’s ‘Theory of Everything’ Could Realize Einstein’s Dream

By Ariel Zilber

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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Many observers have anointed scientist Brian Greene the intellectual heir to the late Carl Sagan, the famed author, astronomer and television host credited with popularizing science to a mass audience through his 1980 public television series, Cosmos.

“It’s very flattering,” Greene said of the comparison. “Carl Sagan was a hero of mine growing up. But I don’t think anybody can really be measured to him.”

Amateurs and science geeks alike can decide for themselves on October 28, when PBS’s flagship science documentary series, NOVA, airs the first installment of “The Elegant Universe.” Hosted by Greene, the three-part series about “string theory” is based on his best-selling book of the same title, which garnered consideration for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

Greene — a professor at Columbia University — hopes to use NOVA to introduce a wide audience to string theory, a “theory of everything” that seeks to reconcile the inherent contradictions of quantum physics and general relativity. Some scientists believe string theory goes a long way toward achieving what Albert Einstein could not, to figure out what the universe is made of.

“It’s a theory that’s trying to realize Einstein’s dream that he sought for many decades,” Greene said, “which was to find a unified theory that describes everything in the world — all the forces, all the matter, from one basic idea.”

According to Greene, Einstein’s findings were impressive insofar as they mainly focused on gravity, whereas string theory seeks to incorporate the theory of gravity with three other forces of the universe: electromagnetic, the “strong” nuclear force (the force of atoms) and the “weak” nuclear force that gives rise to radioactive decay. With the aid of computerized graphics and animation, Greene will attempt in “The Elegant Universe” to explain the nuances of string theory without getting bogged down by scientific jargon.

The universe “is one of those subjects that’s so rich, so compelling you don’t have to do much beyond getting it out there,” he said, “[especially] once people get over the hurdle of not associating science with mathematics. The ideas are out there for anybody to understand.”

A native of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Greene grew up literally in the shadow of science — he lived across the street from the original Hayden Planetarium. He received little religious education growing up, but as an adult Greene said that his work has given him a new perspective on Judaism. Rather than science and religion delegitimizing each other, he believes that they can complement each other.

“I work within a framework that has religious overtones, but my perspective is one of a scientist,” Greene said. “If you try to take certain religious doctrines literally, then it could be difficult to square it with science as we understand it.

“But if you consider religion as the basic assumption that the universe can be made sense of, that there’s a wonderful dovetailing of so many features of the universe that fit together perfectly, then that set of ideas works equally well for science,” he continued. “My view is that if what we’re doing is revealing a design that was put in by a divine creator, that’s fantastic. But it’s also possible that all we’re doing is revealing fundamental laws that cover the universe, [and] that’s all there is — there is no divine creator. And that’s okay with me, too.”

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